Ageing well is a bit like a three-legged stool. You need to balance the mental, the physical and social, and neglecting any of the three can make for a very wonky seat.
“It’s all interlinked,” says Susan Saunders, a health coach and co-author of the successful blog, agewellproject.com. “When we started looking into ageing well, I thought it was just about food. But as we researched more, I realised there were so many other things that were really important – exercise, how well you move, sleep is really critical, mental stimulation. Having pastimes is as important as eating well and exercising.”
What does ageing well mean to you
Susan’s motivation to research ageing well stemmed from caring for her own mother, who suffered from dementia – and had previously looked after Susan’s grandmother, with the same condition. Fearing the same fate, Susan began to research ways to overcome her genetic inheritance.
“The advice is all so confusing,” says Susan. “We’re constantly being told if you drink coffee you’ll live forever, and then the next day that if you drink coffee you’ll die. I wanted to decide what worked for me.”
Back then, with a full-time job and two small children, time was of the essence. “The reality is, you don’t need much time – 10 minutes a day can make a huge difference. Get outside first thing for 10 minutes; that resets your circadian rhythms so you’ll sleep better. Keep hand weights by the kettle, do some stretches while you wait for it to boil.”
In the words of American physician and author, Dr Mark Hyman, it’s genetics that loads the gun, but it’s environment that pulls the trigger; that applies not just to dementia, but to all aspects of genetic inheritance. Where once mental and physical decline was considered an inevitable part of ageing, the current older generation is smashing many of the previously accepted generalities by living smarter than their parents.
“We all have an opportunity to change the way we age,” says Susan. “About 25% of the population carry the gene for dementia; it’s the Number One fear for people as they age. But lifestyle can make a big difference.
“The important thing is to start now.”
Prioritise investing in your health and happiness
Being healthy, though, is a very individual concept. “When you’re planning for later life and trying to work out how long you’re going to live, it’s very difficult,” says Emma Byron, Managing Director of Retirement Solutions at Legal & General. “Quite often people make the mistake of looking to their parents as an indicator, but that’s a mistake. Lifestyle is a huge factor. The more you can invest in your health and mental happiness, the more it will help you in retirement. It’s not just about living longer, it’s got to be about living a happier retirement.”
Mental health will be seriously impacted by money worries, so working out whether you have enough to fund your own version of later life is key. Emma recommends breaking the finances down into basic living needs, the nice-to-haves such as holidays, and a rainy day fund for things like car repairs or replacing appliances.
However, it takes more than financial peace of mind to achieve full mental happiness. If there’s one single thing you need to do for good health, it’s maintaining good relationships and friendships, says Susan.
“We evolved as social animals and we feel safe as tribes,” she says. “Research has found that friendships are a guarantee of successful ageing. Social connections should be your top priority – loneliness is such a killer.”
Yet despite all the evidence, many of us struggle to prioritise our health. The idea that decline is inevitable, coupled with busy lives and residual mistakes about health such as “fat is the foe” combine to leave many of us overweight, under-exercised and anxious.
“Getting healthy is empowering,” says Susan. “You’re not just physically better, but are more creative, more grounded.”
Doctors are starting to fight the chronic conditions that now plague our society with ‘social prescribing’ – non-clinical activities that range from cycling to gardening to group learning to creative arts.
“Think of it as a gift to your future self,” advises Susan. “Make a plan and write it down. That makes things more real and gives you a focus. If you need support, there are lots of places to go for help.”
It’s important to accept the reality of your current situation, and not beat yourself up about it. Everyone has a different starting point and different goals, but it’s also important not to fool yourself into thinking that a gentle stroll with the dog and finishing the daily sudoku is enough. Being your best self is a huge opportunity for growth and change.
“The last third of your life will be as individual as you are,” says Susan. “The more individual you make it, the better it will be. The more you find things that you’re passionate about, that stimulate you and allow you to meet other people, the better your health will be.” You can listen to more of Susan’s advice on our podcast episode, Healthy Body, Healthy Mind.